BMCR 2016.08.38

The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic through the Roman Period. Cambridge world archaeology

, The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic through the Roman Period. Cambridge world archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xix, 449. ISBN 9781107006690. $135.00.


Part of the Cambridge World Archaeology series, this book presents a synthesis of the archaeology of Neolithic and Bronze Age Malta not achieved since John Evans’s seminal Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands,1 and in addition, also contains chapters covering Punic/Phoenician and Roman sites. This is an ambitious and compendious book that falls intermediately in scope and detail between Evans’s work and Sagona’s own treatise on Punic Malta,2 and more popular accounts of Maltese archaeology.3 The book is generally a success, but the treatment of various cultural phases is uneven and—especially in the Early Neolithic (Chapter 2) and Roman periods (Chapter 8)—the reader is left wondering whether more could have been made of the available evidence within Malta and its relationship to the surrounding Mediterranean worlds.

The book is structured chronologically, with each section containing a very useful overview of the material culture and evidence for the economy of each cultural phase that has been identified. Chapter 1 sets the scene: the Maltese Islands are a small archipelago in the central Mediterranean, comprised of limestone, isolated from neighbouring landmasses, and today rather denuded of natural vegetation. The islands are now intensively populated and perhaps were in the distant past too, as some of the world’s most remarkable prehistoric sites are found in Malta and Gozo—most renowned of all are the megalithic buildings (‘temples’) built and used presumably for ritual between approximately 4000 and 2400 BC (i.e. the Copper Age, although due to an absence of the metal in Malta the term is not used). The book begins with a brief history of archaeology in Malta, explaining how international interest in these prehistoric monuments was first piqued in the 17th century. A number of antiquarian investigations followed, and by the late 19th century, the work had become recognisably ‘archaeological’. By this time, the pace of development on Malta and Gozo had increased, and there was already an awareness that the archaeological resource was finite—indeed the richness of the islands’ archaeology is a consequence of the successful management of this resource over years of rapid change. Twentieth-century archaeology in Malta saw the excavation of important prehistoric sites by Maltese, Italian and British workers, and from the 1960s onwards, the development of a radiocarbon-dated cultural sequence that provided and still provides a framework upon which the successive phases of prehistoric human occupation can be mapped.

All the available radiometric data for Malta is presented in Chapter 1 (with further details in an appendix) by graphing the probability distributions of the available dates. Missing is a some kind of way to summarise these data further; useful, for example, would have been a table of the various phases, associated with an estimated span of their dates. Although a map of sites mentioned in the text is given, there is no attempt to show the topography and geology of the islands, which are both important factors in the location of the sites, as discussed elsewhere in the book.

Chapter 2 provides an account of the evidence of the Ghar Dalam (5000-4300 BC), Grey Skorba (4500-4400 BC) and Red Skorba phases (4400-4100 BC), which aside from tenuous and inconclusive evidence for Palaeolithic, comprise the first, overlapping phases of Maltese prehistory. Much of the discussion is dependent on the finds, structures and samples from one site, also known as Skorba, where strata from most of the Maltese prehistoric phases were excavated between 1961 and 1963.4 Sagona points out both the similarity and growing differences between Maltese and Sicilian material culture during these times, although illustration of the Sicilian evidence would have been a useful addition for the reader. Also, there is no discussion about why the ‘phases’ or ‘periods’ (the terms are used interchangeably) apparently overlap during the 4400-4300 BC period; clearly there are very few radiocarbon dates to build the chronology upon, but the book does not adequately acknowledge the problem, let alone suggest ways in which the necessary refinements can be made.

Chapter 3 deals with the ‘Late Neolithic’, from 4100 to 2400 BC, the period of time that concerns the great megalithic structures and hypogea for which the islands are known. Sagona avoids where possible the arguably misleading term ‘temple’ for the Maltese megaliths. This, of course, leads the reader to speculate about what the structures were actually built for, and although there is plenty of discussion that sacred or shamanistic aspects of Late Neolithic life in Malta are suggested by the material culture and architectural details of the period, there is very little discussion concerning the function of the megaliths themselves. There are interesting parallels drawn between Late Neolithic iconography found in the hypogea and hallucinated patterns commonly seen during trance states. These observations, and the ethnographic parallels on which Sagona draws when attempting to probe the belief system, add much colour to problems that are difficult to grapple with. The conclusions are of course speculative but thought provoking. Not satisfactorily addressed, however, is the overwhelming evidence from the excavated megalithic sites that animals were of paramount importance. The evidence of this comes from the animal bones found during excavations at the megalithic sites and the representative carvings found at the megalithic site of Tarxien.5

Chapter 4 rehearses an important debate in Maltese archaeology concerning the end of the Late Neolithic period and what happened to the megalithic culture that reigned on the island for centuries but suddenly ‘collapsed’ or disappeared around 2400 BC.6 For Sagona, the period is a time of cultural transition rather than collapse or catastrophe, the presence of a unique ‘Thermi ware’ pottery type from Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age strata at several sites providing evidence for a degree of continuity. But whether the period began after a break in the cultural sequence is a critical question that can only be answered, as Sagona points out (139), with more radiocarbon dates. The chapter also contains an interesting discussion on the origin of so-called ‘cart ruts’—bedrock striations found in many parts of Malta—that Sagona proposes are somehow related to the act of artificially manufacturing soil to bring otherwise barren land into agricultural productivity. These features are very difficult to date, however, and indeed may be from slightly later in the Bronze Age. To fully accept Sagona’s thesis, it will be necessary to compare their distribution not only to other archaeological sites (117) but also the bedrock geology and topographic factors, and unfortunately this exercise was not done.

The Early and Middle Bronze Ages in Malta are discussed in Chapter 5. Around 2400 BC, the dawn of the ‘Tarxien Cemetery’ period heralded new directions for the early Maltese, less apparent insularity and greater connection to other Mediterranean cultures, which are also themes that develop later in the book as the account of Punic and classical Malta plays out. This period differed from the Neolithic in terms of material culture, artistic style, and funerary rites. Next came the ‘Borg in-Nadur period’ beginning in 1500 BC (the transition is another archaeological mystery), which is described as a time of fortified sites at naturally strategic locations, small rural settlements, and caves used for dwelling and ritual.

The most satisfying Chapters in the book are 6 and 7, which concern the evidence for the Phoenician settlement of Malta in c. 750 BC (although there is much evidence for earlier influence), and their descendants who, two centuries later, came to be known by their Roman competitors as Punic. The end of the Bronze Age is considered first (in Chapter 6), the timing of which is again bedevilled by poor dating. Here, and elsewhere in the book, Sagona is keen to stress continuity, although given the absence of archaeological evidence, one is left wondering what the reasons for this are.

Reading Chapter 8 ‘Malta’s Place in the Roman World’, one is left with the impression that the archaeological evidence for this period is slight. This may be somewhat misrepresentative of the reality—there are many sites, although few that approach the magnificent vestiges of the Roman world found elsewhere in the Mediterranean. There was apparently much continuity with Punic lifeways, the best archaeological evidence for which is present in the funerary record, but unfortunately discussion on this important theme is limited to less than two pages, and fails to account for how burial practices evolved and were elaborated throughout the Roman period.

Some aspects of Sagona’s book must be highly praised: there are detailed drawings and even some photographs of the bewildering array of pottery styles from each cultural phase. The appendices are excellent and very useful, giving a complete and georeferenced list of archaeological sites from the periods in question and details of radiocarbon dates. The bibliography too is a goldmine of information, and will be useful for years to come as a guide to the quite sizable body of literature concerning Malta and its archaeological past. There is an excellent index. However, for a volume that aspires to ‘The Archaeology of Malta’, there are too many frustrating omissions in the discussions, and simultaneously too much entanglement of fact and interpretation. That said, the book is a useful contribution, and as such the publisher ought to have provided better proofing, thicker paper and the perhaps some colour photographs—considering that the book is lacking in all these respects, its fairly high cost is difficult to justify.


1. Evans, J. D. 1971. The prehistoric antiquities of the Maltese Islands. (London: Athlone Press).

2. Sagona, C. 2002. The Archaeology of Punic Malta. (Leuven: Peeters Press).

3. Given by, for example, Trump, D. H. 1990. Malta: An archaeological Guide. (Valletta: Progress Press Co. Ltd.; and Cilia, D. 2004). Malta Before History. (Malta: Miranda).

4. Trump, D. H. 1966. Skorba. (London: Society of Antiquaries).

5. E.g. Evans 1971, 116-149.

6. See Malone et al. (ed.) 2009. Mortuary Customs in prehistoric Malta. (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research), pp. 341-346.